Pension tension: House lawmakers call out Gov. Rick Scott’s administration for study delay

Despite outward signs of support, Gov. Rick Scott's administration quietly endangered a top priority of fellow Republicans in the Legislature by delaying a financial analysis needed to help justify a public-worker pension-reform plan.

The issue boiled over late last week when state House Speaker Will Weatherford had to personally call Scott and his newly minted lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, and complained that the governor's staff stopped a state agency from conducting the analysis.

“There is no question the Governor’s staff directed DMS to stop working with the House,” the state House budget chairman, Seth McKeel, said in a written statement furnished to the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times.

“The law requires the department to conduct actuary studies on all pension bills, and the hold-up would have resulted in killing pension reform without a single vote of elected officials,” McKeel, R-Lakeland, said. “Thankfully Lt. Governor Lopez-Cantera and Gov. Scott stepped in to correct the problem.”

Such direct finger-pointing from legislative leaders to the staff of a governor of the same party is unusual. The surprising tension threatens to complicate Scott's ability to steer a limited election-year agenda through the Republican Legislature heading into the lawmaking session that begins next week.

Complicating matters: Scott on Monday denied McKeel’s claims about his agency’s foot-dragging over the study, which would analyze the costs of changing pensions for most state workers who are hired in the future.

The delay has fueled speculation from Republicans that Scott’s administration wanted to kill the controversial pension-reform plan to spare the governor an election-year headache —one that would fire up left-leaning unions. However, since pension reform is a top issue for conservatives, the administration’s delay could outrage some of Scott’s Republican base.

McKeel said he was surprised the governor’s administration would hinder an issue supported by Scott and legislative leaders, who made pension reform a top priority this session.

After the battery of high-level calls last week from Weatherford and others, DMS changed course. It issued a letter late Friday saying the pension-reform analysis was back on track.

McKeel’s fellow Republican lawmaker, Trilby Sen. Wilton Simpson, also couldn’t explain why the delay happened. But like McKeel, Simpson said DMS bore responsibility.

By crediting Lopez-Cantera with helping to salvage the pension study — and therefore the fate of the proposed overhaul — legislators are sending a subtle signal to Scott that they’re increasingly mistrustful of his embattled chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, who declined to comment.

Lopez-Cantera, a former Miami-Dade property appraiser, is well-liked by many lawmakers, particularly in the House, where he once served as Republican leader.

Hollingsworth has angered some legislators with his micro-managing of the governor's issues. His allies have credited him with improved relations with lawmakers — a sentiment that hasn’t been apparent in the behind-the-scenes pension tussle.

The governor's longest-serving chief of staff, Hollingsworth acts as an unofficial campaign consultant, a role that deepens suspicions among Republicans that Scott’s chief of staff was playing politics with pension reform — and not the kind that the GOP wants. It happened once before, last year, when Hollingsworth played a role in the governor’s decision to call for Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. The left-leaning move angered conservatives, and Weatherford’s House crushed the proposal.

Hollingsworth became the center of controversy late last year when he admitted to once lying about his academic credentials in a former job. Last week, the Associated Press pointed out that Scott advocated for a $200 million train-depot deal benefiting a company that previously employed Hollingsworth, who pushed for the lucrative arrangement before assuming his state office.

Scott has stood by Hollingsworth and his administrative staff.

Asked Monday about McKeel’s statement — that there were “no question” about the Scott staff’s involvement in delaying the pension study —the governor tersley replied: “Absolutely not.”

A staffer shouted “last question,” preventing a reporter from asking Scott a follow-up question.

Scott’s denials aside, the pension-study delay clearly happened.

In the past few weeks, the Department of Management Services stopped returning phone calls from lawmakers and their staff. And DMS officials skipped some committee hearings, where lawmakers were counting on their attendance.

McKeel and other lawmakers publicly fumed at committee meetings. Yet nothing changed. The agency remained mysteriously silent.

Late last week, House Speaker Weatherford had enough. He starting phoning Scott, Lopez-Cantera and state Sen. John Thrasher, a Jacksonville Republican who is friends with Hollingsworth.

Thrasher didn’t return calls to the Herald/Times. Weatherford wouldn’t comment. Lopez-Cantera couldn’t be reached. And Senate President Gaetz, also tied to the talks, wouldn’t comment.

Lawmakers say they’re not exactly sure why anyone in Scott’s administration would have delayed the pension-reform analysis.

Scott repeatedly has endorsed public-worker pension reform.

Trailing in the polls and preparing for a tough reelection fight, however, Scott wants to push a relatively easy-to-accomplish election-year agenda once the 60-day legislative session starts March 4.

And pension reform is not an easy lift.

Some Republicans who represent areas with large numbers of public workers are nervous about the proposal. It’s largely opposed by Democrats and public-sector workers and unions, who say it degrades their compensation.

The proposal wouldn’t affect current state workers. Only those hired after it passes would see a change. The legislation would peg more retirement payouts to the financial condition of workers’ pension plans, so state workers would get less in lean times and more in flush times.

At minimum, those future state workers would see future benefit increases of 2 percent minimum, legislative analysts say. For the past few decades, regardless of the economy’s condition, state workers have had pension increases that averaged about 6 percent.

Pension reform died last year when a state financial analyst produced unreliable numbers. This year, lawmakers hoped to get it right by starting early.

Time is essential because of the shortened session. Any delay can seriously harm a bill’s chances.

According to the Friday letter sent by DMS, final numbers might come out mid-way through session, which some fret could be too late.

Rep. McKeel said he’s thankful that Lopez-Cantera played a key role in clearing up the dysfunction.

“It looks like we are getting back on track, although the process has been delayed,” McKeel said.

Like Rep. McKeel, Sen. Simpson issued a statement expressing concern about what happened.

“We are disappointed DMS did not proceed in a timely manner,” Simpson said in a statement, “and appreciate Governor Scott directing the agency to complete the study.”

Miami Herald Capitol Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas, Tampa Bay Times Bureau Chief Steve Bousquet and Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.